Response: March 2014 Issue

Map is a Verb

A Conversation with Ward L. Kaiser, the Author of How Maps Change Things.

Map is a Verb

In 1974 Arnos Peters introduced his equal area Peters Projection Map to the world—and to much controversy—at a press conference in his native Berlin, Germany. Mr. Peters, a man who grew up in Nazi Germany, was on a mission to promote justice by creating a map that showed the world's landmasses in their accurate proportions. DebaMr. Kaiserte over the maps was still abuzz nearly a decade later when Ward L. Kaiser, as head of the U.S. National Council of Churches' Friendship Press, published the first English-language version of the Peters Projection Map in 1983.

Mr. Kaiser explores the role of maps in how people see the world and their neighbors in his new book How Maps Change Things. response recently spoke to Mr. Kaiser about his work and how maps impact the world.

response: As a pastor, how'd you get into the mapmaking and publishing business?

Mr. Kaiser: Cartography often is seen as foreign to a pastor's calling, but my conviction is that a map's function is not just as a means of finding fact. That's an important function of a map, but it's probably minor. Maps provide an overview, a worldview that shapes how we see the world and relate to people. And that begins to sound like religion.

response: In the book I Won't Call You Sir, the late Ezekiel C. Makunike, a United Methodist missionary to the United States from Zimbabwe in the 1990s, tells a story from his childhood about a European man who kept coming to their land and climbing the mountains. The people found his fascination with their land amusing and nicknamed him "Mountain Climber." They waved, he waved back. Then one day, they went to graze their cattle, and the area was fenced off. Signs were posted ordering each family to sell all but four cows-the cultural measure of wealth-and take the rest to white settlers for butchering. The man had been a surveyor and had made maps that gave their land to white settlers.

Mr. Kaiser: The colonial powers used maps as an instrument of power. They created them, and so they controlled them. My contention is we tend to think of a map as a physical object, a noun. We spread it on the table, put it in the glove compartment. Maps in actuality are verbs. They are agents of change. They change the way people graze their cattle. Boundaries are human means of control. If you look at the world from space, there are no boundaries. The Creator did not create these boundaries. We have created boundaries. Maps change our mentality and way of looking at the world.

The colonial mentality bridges the colonialism of the past and the commercial imperialism of the present. Today, instead of Britain or Belgium or Spain, it's big international companies. If they want to take over the land, they find a way to do it regardless of the indigenous people's culture. That's a negative use of maps, but maps can also have a positive effect. Maps can beckon us to a better world. They can pull us forward. That's where the Peters Projection Map comes in. It brings in fairness. Instead of European powers showing themselves as powerful and vast, they're brought down to size, …by … showing the way it is.

response: The Peters Projection is an "equal area" map. What exactly does that mean?

Mr. Kaiser: Equal area maps means that one square inch anywhere on the map has exactly the same value as one square inch somewhere else. You don't enlarge some areas and diminish others. The Mercator projection map and others distort size. On the Mercator map, Greenland shows about the same size as Africa. In reality, Africa is 14 times the size of Greenland. Scandinavia shows as the same size as India, and that's absolutely wrong. India is three times as large, in actual fact. …It does a disservice to every schoolchild who looks at that maps because it presents a distortion. It feeds into racism, ethnocentrism and a distorted feeling of arrogance…. Peters is not the only equal-area map, but it is the most prominent and most widely used. So it continues to make its mark on the world.

response: The Peters map was controversial when it was published in 1974.

Mr. Kaiser: The controversy has not entirely died down, but it is much more muted. It began partly because the Peter's map producers and supporters made claims that were unfounded. They said this is the only map that should be used. That's overblown. It's not. We need many maps to show the complexity of the world. The opponents have begun to see the merits in the Peters map.

response: In How Maps Change Things, you write, "All maps stimulate questions." What questions should everyday map users like response readers ask when they approach a map? While on vacation? While studying? While reading a news story?

Mr. Kaiser: What is the mapmaker's purpose? What is the mapmaker trying to do or say? With the Mercator map, his objective was to help sailors navigate across the seas where there are no landmarks. Sailing was very difficult and brought about loss of life and property very frequently. The objective of the Peters map is justice, equality of treatment. Is that purpose achieved? How well is the objective met? Is the map reliable? Does it show bias? A mapmaker can be biased, and so a mapmaker's map can be biased. In my book I show a Cuba map that showed bias: It enlarged Cuba and the United States, by contrast, is dimensioned. What the Cubans were doing in that map was exactly the same distortion the Mercator map does. Prior to World War II, German maps enlarged Germany. The whole idea of "We are big, we are important" fed into the mindset of the Nazis.

response: In your book, the story of about the impact of satellite imaging on the Hans Island was interesting.

Mr. Kaiser: The North Pole is presumed to belong to Canada, but satellite imagery, as far as Demark is concerned, shows there is land under the water that proves Hans Island really is part of Demark. There is a scientific basis for the claim.

When you say, "This is a disputed area," hostilities can occur. And it may not be a scientific dispute; it may be political. It was European powers that divided Africa and created the national structures of the Middle East. The worldview of an outsider imposing their will on the world does not order well for peace. An outsider may say, "Let the river be the boundary. People on one side will now speak English and go to Anglican churches; people on the other side will be Catholic and speak French."

Little did they realize that [to the indigenous people] the river was not a boundary- it was a place of meeting. People of both sides could go to the river for bathing, washing, etc.

response: How can maps impact our understanding of climate change?

Mr. Kaiser: The current [January] issue of National Geographic has a map showing what would happen to various parts of the world should the polar ice cap ever totally melt. If that were to happen, the sea level would rise 216 feet. As a result, Florida would disappear. … Much of New York City would be underwater. In San Francisco, the top of the hills would show as islands. But the most significant impact of climate change is in the "third world" nations where most people live on the edge. They have nowhere to go. Here, we have alternatives. We have transportation. If we know in advance, we can move out. But in Pakistan, parts of Africa, parts of Asia, … even before the polar ice cap totally melts, we have trouble. There's a small country in the Pacific saying now, "We need a place to move to." What country is going to open its doors and welcome those people into their lands?

response: What's the impact of the Global Positioning System (GPS) on mapping?

Mr. Kaiser: Mapping is becoming democratized with GPS. It used to be that a map was invented by a mathematician sitting in a room. Nations hid their maps. It was a serious penalty for anyone who stole a map or handed it over to an enemy. That's a sharp contrast with today … where everyone can create a map online, … maps are a part of our everyday experience. GPS is a part of that.

response: Is there anything you'd like to say to United Methodist Women members about the maps they use?

Mr. Kaiser: First, a world of commendation, appreciation … for what they have done and for being foresighted enough to see that the Peters map worked for justice. Today, it's either the second or third most widely accepted map, and part of that credit goes to United Methodist Women and The United Methodist Church. The Peters map is moving us toward equality. God's intention for the world would seem to be a world of love and respect and cooperative efforts, not one of command and control.

Yvette Moore is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 3/4/2014 11:00:00 PM